Leaders, Citizens Of Los Angeles Ponder Lessons

Response by local, state officials questioned, some observers say gang status is enhanced

WHILE gospel music wafts from the hilltop First African Methodist Episcopal Church here, volunteers unload foodstuffs from trucks onto the chapel lawn.

A few blocks away, at the corner of 35th and Western, National Guard troops stand in riot gear holding M-16 rifles tipped with bayonets.

"I'm concerned about when they take the troops away," says area resident Richard Brown. "These riots served as a recruitment exercise for gangs. Nothing has changed for the youth of these neighborhoods."

As Los Angeles moves closer to normalcy, questions persist over how authorities responded to the riot in the first place.

Though many residents of riot-torn south-central Los Angeles have welcomed the presence of the military, they have found the spectacle of so many armed men in their streets haunting as well as reassuring. Many worry about renewed outbreaks of violence and looting as the troops recede, while others see in the fatigue-clad cordons a reminder of a city under partial occupation - and the enormous social problems that await to be addressed in the wake of the rioting.

"It is a horrible picture, except for the elderly who feel protected," says Bishop Carl Bean, a local black leader. "We need to talk about the perpetuation of racism and classism that caused all this. That's the real problem."

Coinciding with the look forward is mounting criticism of the time it took the Los Angeles Police Department and National Guard to respond to the crisis. LAPD Chief Daryl Gates, who was at a fund-raising event when the first outbreaks of violence occurred in the wake of the Rodney King trial, has been singled out for not better anticipating the unrest and for not deploying officers quickly enough.

The Los Angeles Police Commission is launching an inquiry into the department's actions. Chief Gates says no one could have known what the verdict was going to be - or the response.

Some National Guard units were dispatched to Los Angeles not long after the violence broke out, but there were delays in getting them onto the streets. A lack of ammunition and other equipment was partly to blame.

California Gov. Pete Wilson (R) has ordered a probe into the Guard's response. Chief Gates's early handling of the unrest has brought renewed calls for his quick retirement; widened the rift between him and Mayor Tom Bradley, who has been among the most outspoken about the chief's conduct; and intensified interest a in June ballot measure that would change oversight of the LAPD.

Behind the finger pointing and political maneuvering, though, are fundamental questions about how police should respond to a riot that will likely be debated for months. In the aftermath of the tumult of the 1960s, tomes were written on how authorities should and should not handle rioting.

Some outside experts believe Los Angeles still needs schooling. Gregg Carter, an expert on racial tension at Bryant College in Smithfield, R.I., says that, in a city as spread out as Los Angeles, the best thing you can do is respond with a massive show of force. Others, though, say that too aggressive a response would have provoked more violence.

Once on the streets, law enforcement authorities have not been lax. Well over 12,000 people have been arrested since the rioting erupted a week ago, many for curfew violations, some for looting. Courtrooms have been operating virtually nonstop. The population of Los Angeles County jails quickly swelled to a record 25,000, its court-set legal limit.

As the criminal justice turnstiles spin, state and local officials continue to plan for reconstruction. As much as $600 million in federal aid has been pledged. One California lawmaker wants to temporarily raise the state sales tax to help pay for riot costs, now approaching $1 billion.

The deeper problems that underlay the three days of rioting, meanwhile, are moving up the national political agenda. President Bush is scheduled to visit Los Angeles this week to give his prescriptions for urban renewal. Democratic presidential aspirant Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas surveyed damaged areas May 4, as did Mr. Bush's GOP challenger, Patrick Buchanan.

Community leaders continue to search for their own lessons in all of this. Mr. Brown says black leaders could have responded more vigorously in the early stages of the crisis. "They should've opened up Dodger Stadium or the Coliseum [sports complex] to let people express their anger in rallies or with rap singers," he says. "Instead, they closed the schools. What did they think those kids were going to do with extra time on their hands?"

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